I’d like to thank Eric Palonen and Sennheiser USA for the review sample, along with Sennheiser’s Rosmadi Mahmood for addressing any questions or comments I had regarding the CX985.
The following review is on the CX985, the replacement for the last generation CX980 and the latest entry in Sennheiser’s long line of consumer-directed in-ear headphones. As always, the sound heard from canalphones and in-ear monitors is highly dependent on fit and/or tip choice, among other factors, so your mileage may vary.
ACCESSORIES AND BUILD QUALITY
The package of the Sennheiser CX985 contains a large assortment of accessories: a full set of ear adapters, including two types of silicone tips and smallish memory foam tips, a curious-looking shirt clip, diaphragm guards (i.e. filters), a cleaning tool, an airline adapter, a small pouch, and a larger carrying case.
The CX985 includes a wide assortment of accessories. Carrying case not shown.
I know that as a Head-Fier I shouldn’t dwell too much over the design of earphones and headphones, but I can’t help but pay attention to the detail and craftsmanship that went into the design and manufacture of the CX985. The metal used on the earphones gives the CX985 a very classy yet understated look. The earpieces feel substantial, yet not overly heavy. One interesting design choice focuses on the volume controller. Here Sennheiser integrated the Y-split and volume controller into one piece, simplifying the design. The volume control itself is simple and easy to use, reminiscent of the volume controller on the old MX500 but a bit bulkier. Stress reliefs on the CX985 are present but well-concealed, and I really do like the newly redesigned swivel plug that can be converted to a straight plug, 90-degree angle, or anything in-between. Microphonics are present, but are minimized substantially when using the cable cinch, which cleverly separates from the volume controller.
A closer view of the CX985
Looking at the actual earpieces, it is notable that the CX985 eschews the usual grill-like filter in favor of diaphragm guards, small pieces of foam that are inserted into the angled nozzles of the earphones. First making an appearance in the 800 series CX earphones as well as this earphone’s predecessor, the CX980, the use of foam diaphragm guards was most likely a response to a few cases where some CX canalphone owners experienced softening, or complete loss of, volume in one or both earpieces as a result of clogged filters. I think it was a good idea for Sennheiser to address this by using user-replaceable filters, and should benefit both the consumer and the company alike. It also opens up some modding potential, though I didn’t really explore that in the time leading up to this review.
While on the topic of modding, let’s take a look at the two different types of silicone tips. These tips are similar in construction to Sony’s Hybrid tips, except the bore of the opening of the tips is quite a bit larger and has a bar across the diameter of the opening that seemingly prevents the diaphragm guard from accidentally falling out (though the foam doesn’t seem to move when inserted fully and properly) and keeps the opening from collapsing when inserted into the ear. Notice in the picture below that the two types of tips sit on the nozzle differently; the bass-enhacing pink-cored tips sit all the way back on the nozzle, while the balanced white-cored tips sit further up.
Picture illustrating how the two types of silicone tips fit on the CX985's nozzle
This results in two distinct levels of seal: the CX985 with the balanced tips feel like the earphone is just sitting in the ear, while with the bass tips, the earphone creates a very noticeable seal. The latter leads to increased isolation (which I find excellent for a vented dynamic) and increased bass response. The balanced tips provide less isolation, though still decent for a vented dynamic canalphone. For those who may not get the best fit with the included tips, keep in mind that the CX985’s nozzle bore is narrower than that of many previous IE series IEMs and CX series earphones (except for the 800 series, Sennheiser/adidas CX68x, and the CX980), so these tips are not compatible. However, I did find that Sony hybrids work well, as do the HiFiMAN/Grado iGi big bi-flanges (Thanks to jant71 for the tip, no pun intended!), and do alter the sound noticeably.
I spent most of my time listening to the CX985 through the balanced, white-cored tips. When I first listened to the earphones with these tips, what struck me first was the clarity of the presentation, with superb transparency and black background. The CX985 is a very airy sounding canalphone, with a tall and deep soundstage that allows instruments to be very well-separated and layered. I do find it lacks just a bit in soundstage width, causing some brass instruments such as trumpets to be placed just outside the right ear, but this rarely presents itself to be an issue at normal listening volumes. As the CX985 is a very dynamic headphone, one must be careful when setting the volume during quiet passages.
The bass of the CX985 when using the balanced tips is very tight with strong impact, despite the fact that quantitatively it is just a bit more than neutral. Texture and extension is quite good, and a slight bump in midbass gives just the right amount of warmth and body to the sound while still maintaining great clarity in the midrange. In these respects the CX985’s bass reminds me of Sennheiser’s entry-level model, the CX280, but the bass here is far quicker, much more dynamic, and doesn’t get in the way of enjoyment like the CX280’s can at times, as it should considering the price difference.
The midrange does remain slightly laid-back and quite airy when compared to neutral-to-slightly-mid-centered IEMs like Etymotic Research’s HF series. Even with its airiness, the Sennheiser never sounds grainy, and the response stays very smooth with the exception of a localized elevation in the upper midrange / lower treble, say around 6 kHz, which can lead to some sibilance and the aforementioned close-sounding brass instruments, as well as slightly higher volume with cymbals. Again, this usually only occurs when listening at higher volume, and I do feel that the CX985 is an excellent performer at lower listening levels. The midrange timbre is otherwise excellent, and string instruments of all kinds reveal the Sennheiser’s great speed and articulation of subtleties.
The treble of the Sennheiser is surprisingly competent. Granted, when I think of great treble response, Sennheiser usually isn’t the first name to come to mind, but I have to say the higher frequencies are well represented in the CX985’s sound signature, especially when using the balanced tips. Highs are very well-extended, detailed, crisp, and yes, sparkly. There is more treble here than in the Etymotic HF3, but there is no hint of splashiness or grain, so the response is pleasant despite the quantity.
Early on, I must confess that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the bass-enhanced, pink-cored tips. Out of the box, I found the CX985s with these tips to sound far too aggressive in the bass and treble, and the overall sound just was not enjoyable. Over time, I found that as the tips started to soften up, I noticed the bass tightened up considerably, and the treble actually turned out to be a bit smoother than the white-cored balanced tips. That said, these are tips are referred to as bass-enhanced for a reason. The lower frequencies of the CX985 are substantially fuller and deeper sounding when compared to leaner-sounding balanced tips. The bass-enhanced tips add darkness to the tone, though some of that darkness is offset by elevated upper mids and treble. I can definitely see the CX985-and-bass-tip combination becoming a favorite among more discerning bassheads as much of the quality of the bass that is revealed by the balanced tips, including the excellent texture and impact, is retained, albeit amplified in volume.
When I had a chance to review the CX280, I concluded that we were getting a glimpse of what was to come from Sennheiser: in-ear headphones that retained what many like about their sound, including the large soundstage, foundation-building bass, and natural tonality of the midrange, and supplement that with better resolution, clarity, and less graininess. I was merely hoping that we'd get a higher-end earphone with these traits in the next generation IE series; little did I know that what is essentially a well thought-out refresh of an existing model would give me exactly what I had been looking for. I'm quite pleased with CX985's ability to resolve detail while remaining musical, and in that regard I find it very similar to my favorite earbud, the Creative Aurvana Air. The combination of the great sound, excellent build, and aggressive pricing make the Sennheiser CX985 a great choice for those who are looking for a balanced and/or dark-sounding in-ear headphone that's well-built and looks good, too.